"White foreigners": The danger of history repeating itself

Terry Bell
Opinion
Gwede Mantashe, former chairman of the SA Communist Party, former general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and now the powerful secretary-general of the governing ANC, sounded furious this week. In what must qualify as the most ironic case of “we’ve heard all that before”, he blamed the platinum belt strike and the consequent crisis on “white foreigners”.

There will be many people who will be aware of South Africa’s recent history, along with others old enough to have experienced the apartheid days when it was loudly trumpeted that “white communists” were responsible for “stirring up” the allegedly malleable black majority.

And so, as that French saying goes: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Because both expressions — from the old and the new regime — are arrogant, elitist and, fundamentally racist. They denigrate an entire section of humanity as ignorant and pliable; sheep to be lead wherever.

But such comments are based on perceptions, usually coloured by prejudice, not by facts. Unfortunately, it is on perceptions that many actions are based and many opinions formulated.

For example, Implats executive director Andile Sangqu, informed a University of Cape Town Business School “roundtable” this week that the company had telephoned employees; that 85 per cent of those contacted wanted to return to work, but could not because they said they were afraid for their safety. This implies that the strike is manipulated by a brutish minority.

Although Sangqu did not say how many employees the company had been able to contact, his comment was reported as a fact by local media. This provided popular reinforcement for what is, at best, a dubious proposition.

In the first place, only a limited number of employees were contacted. But, much more importantly, there is plentiful evidence that workers in such situations — and still hoping to be employed in future — will provide answers they think the boss wants to hear; answers that contradict their real feelings.

But this perception of a bullying minority or a small group of politically motivated individuals orchestrating a major strike is both as silly as it is dangerous. Silly, because, factually, it makes little sense and dangerous because those acting on such perceptions will almost probably exacerbate what is usually an already fraught situation.

This certainly applies in relation to the current, long-running strike on the platinum belt. But there is an additional danger: the strike tends to be seen as a snapshot of the present, ignoring the past. Yet the reasons for the determination, the doggedness and the bitterness evident in this strike lie, in the first place, in the bloodshed at Marikana in 2012.

However, there is a long history involving the often abusive system of migrant labour, the neglect and insensitivity toward amaqaba — the uneducated — by line management that became increasingly populated by trade unionists. Former mining executive and business leader, Michael Spicer noted at the roundtable that managerial responsibility had been outsourced to the NUM.

I would put it slightly differently; that managements had co-opted elements of the NUM to do the business of line management. At the other end of the scale, certainly in the case of Lonmin, management also had on its board a leading political figure in Cyril Ramaphosa. This, in the words of Advocate Dali Mpofu, resulted in a case of “toxic collusion between capital and the state”.

Then there is the matter, over many decades, of the grossly disproportionate distribution of the wealth accruing from mining and the living conditions of miners. Government at all levels seems largely to have ignored responsibility in this regard.

Platinum mining is also mainly on land controlled by traditional authorities, the Bafokeng (Amplats and Implats) and the Bamogale (Lonmin). They also showed a marked reluctance to encourage permanent settlement in their areas by migrants who populate the squalid shantytowns.

All of this exists at the time of an ongoing global economic crisis and when the financial outlook for platinum seems far from rosy. Not only is cheaper palladium — where Russia holds the bulk of reserves — being substituted for platinum in autocatalysts, but, as this column has already pointed out, more than 2 million ounces of recycled platinum is now reaching the market every year.

If a lasting solution is to be found the situation will have to be addressed in an holistic manner. This will require courage and innovative thinking to avoid history repeating itself.

We have only to look back to 1946, 1987 and 2012, let alone 1919 and 1922 to realise the danger.